The mystery of what William Shakespeare may have looked like came one step closer to being solved this week when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust unveiled what is thought to be the only authentic image of the Bard painted during his lifetime. (Controversy has long swirled around the authenticity of another famous likeness, the Chandos portrait, which hangs in England’s National Portrait Gallery. The Chandos portrait depicts a balding, rounded-headed bard and is similar to the engraved portrait that adorns the title page of his First Folio.)
The recently unveiled image shows a rosy-cheeked Shakespeare of high social status, contradicting the popular view of a struggling playwright, according to experts from the Trust. The sitter of the newly unveiled painting, known as the Cobbe portrait, had always been unknown until art restorer Alec Cobbe (whose family owned the portrait) attended the National Portrait Gallery’s “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibition. There he came upon a painting known as the Folger portrait, which itself had once been thought to be a life portrait of Shakespeare. The similarities between the two were obvious and the discovery set in motion three years of research and testing.
The result is the belief that the Folger painting (which hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) is a copy of the Cobbe original, painted around 1610 when Shakespeare would have been 46 years old. The Trust’s director, Diana Owen, called the painting’s discovery a “momentous, historical and fascinating event”. Shakespeare enthusiasts will have a chance to view the Cobbe portrait when it goes on display for the summer in Stratford-on-Avon on 23 April.